Silicon Valley Dystopia

“The new road to serfdom — actually, it’s more like a hyperloop — runs right through Silicon Valley.” via Silicon Valley has our backs

This post by Nicholas Carr at Rough Type references a recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist Sam Altman.  I share Carr’s skepticism and the profile is worth reading.  If I understand correctly, Altman’s vision appears to distill down to the following:

  • Technological advancement will bring artificial intelligence and cheap energy.
  • This will bring limitless wealth, and drive down the cost of producing pretty much everything and put pretty much everyone out of a job.
  • Therefore governments should provide stipends to everyone so they can do whatever they want.

All of which sounds wonderful.  But there may be some fundamental dysfunction baked into this vision of technocratic utopia.  This statement by Altman suggests rather a technocratic myopia:

“People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.”

Galaxy S6
Galaxy S6

Exactly which fields of study could one reach expert level via a smart phone?  Neuroscience?  Biochemistry?  Mathematics?  Structural Engineering?  Linguistics?  Philosophy?  Religion?

One of the bothersome aspects of some technocrats’ visions of the future is the apparent shallow appreciation for subjects beyond the range of their expertise.  Perhaps this would not be a problem if learning was merely the collecting of oversimplified and trivial facts, unencumbered by connection to any real context.  Or at least, whatever such info-bits content providers choose to serve up.

But as it happens, most of the really important stuff requires too much mental bandwidth and breadth of experience to fit on a three or four-inch screen.

Loss of Context

Exploring the world in comfort. That’s the theme of a recent commercial for the European travel company, Viking River Cruises. Scenes of Europe flow by to violin strains and a poetic cadence:

“Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes with Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll get closer to iconic landmarks, to local life and cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only Viking can give you.”

The commercial told me next to nothing about the company but the imagery they presented was intriguing. There might be something to be said for touring Europe that way. These seems like a far better use of a trip than some cruise with an inane cartoon theme.  But hold on a minute. Let’s wind the Earth back around the Sun to Paris in 845 AD.

Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes as a Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll sack more iconic landmarks, and loot more cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only being a marauding, pillaging, burning, murdering, and thieving barbarian can give you.

Context is everything.

Replica Longship

My home town used to be heavily Scandinavian and Nordic motifs decorate some of the businesses. There is a strip mall named “Viking Village” where the anchor store has a replica of a longship’s dragon prow on the peak of the roof. It’s truly amazing what a millennium does to the meaning of the names and symbols.

As Christians, we are not immune to losing the context of our symbols.  There are artistic crucifixes in various places in my house. It is a valid symbol of remembrance. Crucifixion only became a widespread object of art after Constantine outlawed it as a method of execution in the Roman empire and its image of brutality faded. As a symbol of commemoration an artistic cross can be a good thing.

But in the Middle Ages it was used to adorn crusader shields. Now it graces everything from napkins to photo frames. It might be fair to say we’ve lost our sense of what the symbol is about.  We do not think of the context of the cross.

It used to take hundreds of years to completely lose a sense of the context of an event.  The meaning of symbols related to an event is shaped by the surrounding culture.  This changes over time but that process used to be much slower.  It’s easy to forget that before mechanization few people traveled very far from where they were born.  There always have been small subsets of a community that traveled, such as merchants and soldiers, and occasionally entire groups would migrate to escape something bad in hopes of finding something better.  For good or for ill, context was created and reinforced by where you lived and whom you lived with.

This is no longer the case.  We move.  We routinely travel distances that used to take days and lifetimes.  Very few of us live with the people we grew up knowing.  We are disconnected from what used to surround our sense of what a symbol meant, and vulnerable to the reframing of symbols by the technology that pervades the modern world.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described the effect of 20th century media in the decontextualization of information and serious discourse, and their repackaging as primarily visual entertainment. It is a dated polemic, having been written three decades ago during the dominance of broadcast television. We have vastly greater access to information than when the book was written. But the notion of decontextualization appears dead-on, making the book a must-read*. Our access to information is now mediated by portable devices that bounce us from one bit of disjointed content to the next.

Is it even possible to communicate context on a 5-inch electronic screen?

*I recommend reading this in tandem with The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Carr’s emphasis is different — specifically how the Internet is changing the way we think.  But the book provides a necessary update for the idea of decontextualization.

Writing Without Spaces

I’ve been reading The Shallows, a book by Nicolas Carr in which he argues that the Internet and devices which provide access to it are essentially rewiring the way we think. What we’ve discovered in the last few decades is that the brain is very malleable and responsive to changes in how we interact with our environment. Carr backstops the discussion with a sketch of the historical development of writing and reading, and cites analysis of the effect on how people think and looks forward to current effects on culture. Carr is looking forward and I’ve found his argument compelling. But what he highlights also has implications for how we engage with ancient authors.

The interaction with text was very different in the ancient world. There were no “books” in the classical world as we think of them. The codex (a stack of pages in a binding) was an invention of the early first millennium. Documents of any length would be recorded on scrolls and early writing was treated by scribes like the oratory they heard. It did not have spaces and there were no rules for word order. Meaning was transmitted through inflection as the text was generally read aloud. Silent reading was apparently rare as reading in this environment would require enormous concentration. The use of text was inherently different as Carr notes:

“The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition.*”

But when scribes began to insert spaces and impose rules of word order, the amount of mental labor required to read was significantly reduced, which facilitated development of the reader’s ability to concentrate and engage more difficult material. This led in turn to the development of the ability to think in a more linear fashion. Carr’s argument for the modern world, is that the Internet is changing how we interact with text and media in ways that appear to interfere with ability to concentrate, and with the linear thought that changes in writing made possible.

Looking back at the history of literacy and books suggests an additional point. Some caution is in order in the interpretation of ancient texts. Some of the fine-grained theological distinctions that Christians argue over might simply be artifacts of linear thinking, which was fostered by the development of easily read books. Nobody in the ancient world sat up late at night reading their scrolls by the flickering light of candles and smoking oil lamps.

The way we think differs radically from how Biblical authors engaged with the texts they wrote. Centuries of argument on a wide range of topics from scholastic disputes during the Middle Ages, to modern denominational divisions over baptism and predestination might lack even the possibility of resolution. The points made in these debates probably never existed in the minds of the original authors.

*Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN: 9780393079364. 2011 Kindle edition p. 63.